Chris Ware: Drawing is a Way of Thinking
by Jeet Heer
Friday, March 5, 2010
I’m in the book so I won’t say too much about it except that the editors are very intelligent and the table of contents (pasted below) looks promising. The book will also have a lovely frontispiece by Ivan Brunetti.
As it turns out, my contribution to the book is relevant to the discussions we’ve been having here at Comics Comics about book design and reprints of old comics. My essay is about Ware’s work on the Walt and Skeezix series and the Krazy and Ignatz series, which I try to place in the larger context of the history of comic strip reprint projects and also tie to Ware’s thematic concerns in his own comics with family history, the legacy of the past, and the pathology of the collector mentality.
Here are a few relevant passages from my essay:
My contention is that in restoring artists like King and Herriman to the public spotlight, Ware is engaged in an act of ancestor-creation, of giving a pedigree and lineage to his own work. In other words, Ware’s book designs are a form of canon formation, a way of filling in the gap of missing archival and historical material, and creating for comics a sense of a continuous tradition and lineage….
Innovative artists often invent their own ancestors as a way of giving a pedigree to their work. There is a sense in which Franz Kafka invented Charles Dickens and T.S. Eliot invented John Donne. Prior to Kafka, Dickens was read as a popular entertainer who specialized in heart-warming picturesque tales. Kafka’s fictions and comments on Dickens recast the Victorian novelist as the dark writer of claustrophobic allegories such as Bleak House. Similarly, Eliot remade John Donne, largely relegated to the status of a literary curiosity, into a major precursor to modernism. In the field of comics, Ware has engaged in a comparable rewriting of the history by offering a new reading of past masters. Challenging the standard view of comics history, which has highlighted the work of realist illustrators such as Hal Foster, Milton Caniff, Alex Raymond, and Jack Kirby, Ware offers an alternative canon that prizes cartoonists who practice either formal experimentation or focus on everyday life, such as Rodolphe Töpffer, George Herriman, Frank King and Gluyas Williams…
In searching for ancestors in earlier comics and trying to recast the history of comics to highlight work that is similar to his own, Ware is part of a larger effort by like-minded cartoonists of generation. Art Spiegelman, a mentor who offered Ware an early national venue in RAW, has often written on comics from the past and sought to resurrect selected masters, notably Harvey Kurtzman and Jack Cole. The Canadian cartoonist Seth has staked out a claim to the tradition of New Yorker cartooning, Canadian comics, and Charles Schulz’s Peanuts (in the last case, designing a multivolume series that parallels what Ware has done with King and Herriman). Chester Brown, another Canadian cartoonist, has creatively appropriated the style of Harold Gray’s Little Orphan Annie. In effect, Ware belongs to a cohort of contemporary cartoonists who are both doing innovative work in the present and in the process re-writing and re-mapping the history of comics….
All of this goes towards explaining why I don’t share – in fact, I can’t even fathom – the objections to Chris Ware’s design on several reprint projects; or Seth’s design on the Peanuts series, the Doug Wright book, and the John Stanley library; or Adrian Tomine’s work on the Tatsumi series; or Chip Kidd’s various reprint books. In each and every case, we have a talented contemporary artist who is creating a connection between their aesthetic concerns and older classic works.
That’s how art history and literary history gets made: by living artists connecting with the past. Art history is not just a museum full of old paintings of Jesus and the Madonna, it’s the connection between old art and modern visual concerns. Literary history is not just a dusty shelf croaking under the weight of old books, it is the connection between the living literature of the present and old books. By writing Ulysses, James Joyce gave us a new way of reading Homer and Shakespeare (Hamlet is everywhere in Joyce’s great novel). John Updike did a series of books inspired by The Scarlet Letter (A Month of Sundays, Roger’s Version, S); these novels made Hawthorne’s venerable text newly urgent.
In the case of comics, we’re lucky that artists are not just connecting with older works and thereby creating a living tradition, these contemporary cartoonists are designing books that make this connection a felt reality, something we can see and touch and hold in our hands. That’s why the books designed by Ware, Seth, Tomine and Kidd are so great: they make visible and plain how the best work of the past informs the best work of the present.
But enough of my ravings. Here is the table of contents for The Comics of Chris Ware: Drawing is a Way of Thinking.
Table of Contents:
Martha B. Kuhlman and David M. Ball, “Chris Ware and the ‘Cult of
Contexts and Canons
1. Jeet Heer, “Inventing Cartooning Ancestors: Ware and the Comics Canon”
2. Jacob Brogan, “Masked Fathers: Jimmy Corrigan and the Superheroic Legacy”
3. Marc Singer, “The Limits of Realism: Alternative Comics and Middlebrow Aesthetics in the Anthologies of Chris Ware”
4. David M. Ball, “Chris Ware’s Failures”
5. Katherine Roeder, “Chris Ware and the Burden of Art History”
6. Martha B. Kuhlman, “In the Comics Workshop: Chris Ware and the Oubapo”
7. Isaac Cates, “Comics and the Grammar of Diagrams”
The Urban Landscape
8. Daniel Worden, “On Modernism’s Ruins: The Architecture of ‘Building Stories’ and Lost Buildings”
9. Matt Godbey, “Chris Ware’s ‘Building Stories,’ Gentrification, and the Lives of/in Houses”
10. Joanna Davis-McElligatt, “Confronting the Intersections of Race, Immigration, and Representation in Chris Ware’s Comics”
11. Shawn Gilmore, “Public and Private Histories in Chris Ware’s Jimmy Corrigan”
12. Benjamin Widiss, “Autobiography with Two Heads: Quimby the Mouse”
13. Georgiana Banita, “Chris Ware and the Pursuit of Slowness”
14. Margaret Fink Berman, “Imagining an Idiosyncratic Belonging: Representing Disability in Chris Ware’s ‘Building Stories’”
15. Peter R. Sattler, “Past Imperfect: ‘Building Stories’ and the Art of Memory”
Chris Ware’s Primary Works: A Guide